The Flame in the Flood — The Molasses Flood’s post-societal road trip through a sunken, collapsing America — originally launched last year for PC and Xbox One, with PS4 and Nintendo Switch versions launching this year. The latter release is the reason we’re here today.
As of yet there’s no name for the ‘road trip’ subsect of games: games which send you along limited paths filled with procedural scenarios; games like Oregon Trail, FTL, Destination Ares, Death Road to Canada, and The Flame in the Flood. Roguelite as a term is often thrown around, as the games have the varied structure and difficulty which comes with randomly ordered events and also regularly feature permadeath — a staple of the sub-genre. The Flame in the Flood stands out in that list because its main mode, Campaign, lets you keep pushing forward even when you’ve fallen, surprisingly forgiving considering other elements of the game.
Visually, the game’s art style is one of contrast: angular, cell-shaded faces; characters and enemies; the jagged shadows of riverside trees colliding with the warming hues of daytime; the rounded islands in the river; and the bright signage of a fallen USA.. Night-time, although it changes little, feels dangerous and full of fear due to the amazing art direction — the eyes of crows and sinister things leering from bushes, silhouette leaves whipping through the dark blue and green shades which paint each area in the Sun’s absence.
The music, too, is exceptional, with the efforts of Chuck Ragan et al. creating a soundtrack which perfectly fits the nigh hopeless, Southern American setting of the game to a tee. It has remained in my playlist since I first played the PC game last year, so it’s been a joy playing The Flame in the Flood and hearing the instruments of its OST again.
The mission to reach Kingdom, as the campaign challenges you, takes you through a ten-section construct; each is filled with various river-bound hazards in the overworld as well as anywhere from a handful up to a couple of dozen places which you can enter into for scavenging, repair, or investigation. Some of these areas are as simple as a repair pier, formerly used to fix up boats, but now perfect for repairing your raft, while others can be extensive grasslands pocked with brightly-painted shops — formerly business districts, now monuments to a society which no longer exists.
Even the most desolate-seeming of these locations have scraps and ruins which can help Scout, the protagonist, on her journey: from safe places to sleep, to feathers and rope for traps. Before all else, The Flame in the Flood is a resource management survival game, and that results in a nagging need to keep a few things in check: Temperature, Hunger, Rest, and Thirst. In addition to those survival cornerstones there’s also a specific need to keep dry and keep all of your blood inside you.
The latter — keeping your inner bits inside — sounds very obvious, but a key part of The Flame in the Flood comes in its illness and ailment systems: get cut up on a razor-sharp plant or set upon by leeches and your health will sap until you treat it; unset broken limbs can lead to permanently crippled stamina; and food poisoning will undermine any gains that you made in quickly gobbling down something you shouldn’t have. There’s also aggressive wildlife, wolves, boars, and bears — all vicious — and you lack any ‘direct’ way to fight them, instead having to rely on limited ranged weapons or traps.
Topping up your fluids is simple, right up until it isn’t. Later in the game, when you’re not wishing for rain, all of the fresh-water pumps are gone and you’ll be filtering water into jars. Filters, just like most everything in the game — from warm hats and rabbit snares to raft upgrades — are either luckily scavenged or assembled from bits of toot, flora, and fauna littered around various locations. One of the smartest design decisions the developers have made, in my opinion, is the game’s recipe system. Whilst other games of its ilk employ tech-tree, trial and error, or experience-fuelled systems to distribute recipes, The Flame in the Flood‘s recipes become visible as soon as you find the prerequisite items.
As many will know, Scout isn’t alone in her adventure down the river; she’s joined by Daisy or Aesop, a haggard dog which can sniff out items as well as carry (and pass on to Scout’s successor, should she fall) six items. Half the size of Scout’s backpack, and of the raft they journey on, but enough to tweak and alter a starting situation in the favour of the player. While this might not be needed in the traveller difficulty of the campaign, where you can reload at the start of each section should you fall, the other mode includes permadeath and as such requires vastly more care and preparation.
It seems very strange to say, especially while talking about a game which requires preparation, as well as a careful eye on supplies and conditions, but it all feels perfect in the Nintendo Switch’s handheld mode. Quick-access menus were easy to get to and the game already paused when the player opened menus to mess with items, so there’s no short-change in that department regarding the change from keyboard to console (I’ve not played the PS4 or Xbox One versions, I should add). As the artwork is heavily stylised, it suffers nothing from the reduction in resolution. In other words, the porting feels perfect, with no slow-down or drop in quality compared to the PC version from what I could see.
Some issues from the original release do persist. The restrictive camera angle in the rafting sections fails to give you far enough lead to see where debris and rubble will float, sometimes leading you into slaloms or simply resulting in a frustrating test of eyesight as you try to dodge the floating scraps of humanity in a narrow passageway. There’s also the matter of the inventory system: some items stack in peculiar numbers, and even though you can use happily stack items into Daisy’s inventory using the menu, items won’t automatically pile in there when you collect them. This means that late-stage rummaging, while dodging bears and wolves, is made more frantic by a continuing need to flip between looting and inventory management screens when it simply shouldn’t be that way.
The Flame in the Flood is a fantastic survival experience, and even though at times it doesn’t feel balanced it is hard to not be further drawn in by the audio and visual efforts of the team. Each of the game’s islands are short experiences, making it a perfect game for short play sessions during the commute — a fine addition to most people’s Switch libraries.
In addition to the Switch, The Flame in the Flood is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC.